First, I’d like to thank everyone for the warm reception of my first post on STEMinist. I’m very excited to be here and hope to grow with this column and everyone who reads it, gaining new experiences and perspectives along the way. In this post I want to expand a bit on role models and what I mentioned briefly last time:
You can’t be what you can’t see.
To do that, however, I feel I should tell you a bit about my journey to where I am today.
The First Type of Role Model: Awakening Interest
I was always a good student and enjoyed studying. There were no subjects I found particularly difficult, but there were those I enjoyed more than others. In secondary school a new teacher really opened my eyes to maths and science. This teacher was enthusiastic, explained things well, listened to students and was never condescending in how he treated people of different ability levels. During the three years he taught my class, everyone wanted to do well in maths and science; everyone wanted to earn his respect. I knew a lot of my classmates had never enjoyed maths and science before, but now made an effort and thought it was fun to go to those classes. This is the first type of role model, the one that gets a child’s attention, awakens an interest and keeps it.
The Second Type of Role Model: Nurturing Potential
In high school/A-levels I continued my focus on maths and science. I studied in the IB (International Baccalaureate) and chose to do Maths, Physics and Chemistry more in-depth. Here again, I was influenced by three fantastic teachers. My chemistry teacher was a woman in her 60’s and had taught chemistry her entire career. Her experiments in class always failed, but her teaching was structured and guiding. When I struggled, she listened and helped, not letting me resign to ‘I don’t understand‘. She pushed me to get a higher grade than I originally thought I could achieve, and wrote a fantastic personal reference for my university application. This is the second type of role model, the one who sees potential and nurtures it into something more.
The Third Type of Role Model: “I want to be like her”
Starting university was a shock, not only culturally (I moved to a new country) but in the way teaching was structured. It opened my eyes to just how much ‘man’ was around me. My first two years studying Chemical Engineering, I spent a lot of time questioning whether I had actually made the right choice. Two things made me stick with it (besides stubbornness):
- The first was a lecturer who taught some of our classes from the third year onward. This was the first time I’d seen a woman doing what I wanted to do. Not only was she inspiring just by being there, she was also approachable, helpful and understanding. More importantly, she didn’t compromise just because she was a woman. She became my personal mentor and no matter what doubts and questions I had, she seemed to have an answer, because she had been there herself. This is the third type of role model, the one you can directly identify with and say, “I want to be like her.”
- The other thing that made me stick with Chemical Engineering leads me to where I am today. I took a year off of university before my final year and worked in an engineering consultancy office for 13 months. This office showed me a mix of 50/50 men and women working together as engineers. Yes, there were issues, and yes there was a vague air of the old boys’ club that sometimes surfaced, but it was a change from university. These women spoke up when they felt things were unfair, and I went back to finish my degree with a different mentality as a result.
Searching for the Next Role Model
Today, I find myself surrounded by colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds, but what I don’t see is that next stage of Role Model to look up to. There are few senior female engineers and even fewer women in senior management.
To a certain extent, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” rings very true during the early years that shape our choices in life. I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today without a lot of guidance and inspiration along the way. But now that I’m here, and know exactly what’s missing, it’s my job to fill that role.
Whatever stage we are in our careers as women in STEM, we have to pave the way to make it easier for future generations of girls to get to where we are. At every fork in the road, when I personally chose to stay in STEM, I know others didn’t because they lacked the right role models.
What inspired you to stay in STEM, and what can we do to make choosing STEM easier for every girl who’s questioning it today?